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Psalm 68

When we take the Torah out from the Ark or return it, we sing the same words from the Torah concerning the Holy Ark that went forth before the Israelites when they went into battle: “Arise God, disperse our enemies and may Your foes flee from before You” (Numbers 10:35). Psalm 68 opens paraphrasing these words and then in a long Psalm, with many obscure words and images, presents the march of the Israel people through history with God as director against foe and of nature. As Rabbi Martin Cohen says of this Psalm’s “spiritual ecology”- “The integration of an individual’s quest for personal salvation, a nation’s desire to live in peace, and the growth of all natural things towards balance and graceful symmetry is at the heart of the poet’s message.”

And yet, this Psalm’s military images prompted its use for interreligious and political wars. The Huguenots (16th-17th century Protestants persecuted by Catholics) called this “The Song of Battles.” And it was used as such by the Crusaders and Savonarola (a 15th century, Dominican friar burned at the stake) and by Oliver Cromwell (17th century, who led Parliament armies against King Charles). On a gentler note, Henry James’ novel, “The Wings of the Dove” (1902), about how neighbors related to a wealthy woman stricken by illness, takes its title from verse 14.

Traditional Jewish commentators largely see this Psalm as a description of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai in the aftermath of the Exodus from Egypt. The Vilna Gaon of 18th century Lithuania proscribed its reading for the second day of Shavuot, celebrating the gift of Torah. A close reading of Psalm 68 will add content to you singing before the Ark, “Arise God, disperse our enemies….”